Should I write a round-robin Christmas letter?

The BBC Magazine says not, with examples:

In a collection published by the Guardian’s Simon Hoggart, one mother wrote:

“Harry was Jesus in the school Jesus Christ, Superstar. This was the best production I have ever seen, youth or adult. Both boys, especially Harry, were physically and emotionally drained at the end. I was drained too… seeing your son crucified nightly is not an experience I would recommend.”

Very funny. But I am not sure the round-robin letter deserves the bad press it gets. A Dear Economist letter from two years ago:

Dear Economist,

Christmas cards are starting to drop through the letterbox and many contain infuriating round-robin newsletters from people I barely know. This is no substitute for real friendship. Why do people send junk mail instead of a proper letter?

Tom, Lancaster

Dear Tom,

You say that people send newsletters “instead of” a proper letter, but I wonder if this is true. Newsletters are subject to extreme economies of scale: the first copy is time-consuming to produce but the rest take just seconds. The likely result is that many people receive newsletters who might otherwise get nothing at all, or only a card reading “best wishes, Brian”, leaving you to wonder who on earth Brian might be.

That is no consolation if it is really preferable to receive nothing at all than to receive a newsletter. But that seems unlikely: economists talk of “free disposal”, a theoretically convenient assumption that would not apply to a half tonne of manure on the doorstep, but surely describes the marginal cost of throwing away Brian’s newsletter along with his card. If you are so certain that these newsletters contain nothing of interest, waste no time in reading them.

You have evidently not discovered the work of economists Jess Gaspar and Ed Glaeser, who show that the new communication technologies – mobile phones, e-mail, word-processors – are not substitutes for traditional human interaction but complements to it. These newsletters, like e-mails and weblogs, help keep friendships alive and actually increase the number of old-style face-to-face meetings.

If you are finding that despite all these newsletters you still have no real friends, I don’t think you should blame the newsletters.

A quick question, as the Christmas cards arrive on the doorstep. Do you prefer the ones with round-robin letters or the ones with nothing but a quick signature or “hope to see you in 2009″? Yes, a handwritten letter in every card would be best, but one must be realistic.

And no, I did not send round-robin letters this year. I probably should have.

Tim Harford’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.